A Swan Song
Well, the game that we are here for today is Stella Glow, the newest release from the company Imageepoch. I don’t usually start review intros right off with mentioning the game to be reviewed, but in this case, its the game itself that has the “interesting tidbits” that I’d like to talk about in the intro. More specifically, a bit of the story leading up to the game’s release. While this game may be Imageepoch’s latest release, it is also their final release.
As the story is still relatively recent news, I’m not going to go into too much detail. Just a bit of background is all we need.
Imageepoch has been around since 2005 and released their first game, Luminous Arc, for the DS in 2007. While it received mixed reviews, it gained a bit of cult interest and became the series the developer would be known for. The same can be said for most of their catalog, actually. Outside of a few games, Imageepoch stuck to developing for handheld systems.
Much of their catalog remains Japan-exclusive, with a few releases making their way Westward. Alongside the sequel to Luminous Arc, the most notable Western releases from the company would have to be Fate/Extra (developed alongside Type-Moon) for the PSP and Time and Eternity for the PS3. Some would say, I’m sure, that these don’t create the most impressive legacy for the company.
However, Stella Glow was a game poised to change that…at least, that’s what it feels like to me. It was set to be a spiritual successor to Luminous Arc and pegged as a kind of magnum opus for Imageepoch, bringing together all the knowledge and skills they’ve developed and refined in their history. It was set to release in Japan in mid-2015.
Then, the CEO of the company fell off the face of the planet.
In early April, Twitter posts from friends of Imageepoch CEO Ryoei Mikage mentioned that nobody could get in contact with him. Those who tried to visit the company’s office found it empty. The company’s websites had been taken offline, and eventually, Mikage’s Twitter page was taken down as well. About a month later, Imageepoch filed for bankruptcy. News about Mikage seems to stop there…at least from what I can see across English-language websites.
Through all that turmoil, though, the fruit of the company’s efforts still managed to make it to the hands of the Japanese public, and over to Western hands as well.
To loop back around to the beginning…the game we are looking at today is the swan song of Imageepoch, Stella Glow. The game is being published in the West by Atlus for the 3DS and is due for release on November 17th, 2015.
From Humble Beginnings
Stella Glow opens on the town of Mithra, a tiny village on the outskirts of the royal capital of Lambert. Here live our main protagonists, Alto and Lisette. Alto himself was found with amnesia by Lisette’s family some years ago, and has been adopted into the family. The two spend their days enjoying a nice, peaceful life…until, while hunting, Alto meets a mysterious girl in the woods outside of the village.
Calling herself Hilda, the thing that catches Alto’s attention is that she is singing. This is quite unusual…as nobody in the world is able to sing. Nobody, that is, except for witches, who cast magic with their songs. Amazed that he has met a witch, he befriends Hilda.
A short time later, the village of Mithra comes under attack. The town is being burned to the ground, and the people are being turned to crystal. In an attempt to stop and undo the damage, Alto attempts to find Hilda again. Unfortunately, he finds her singing again…this time, the “Song of Destruction.” Hilda is the one destroying the town, and Mithra is just one in a series of conquests for her, the Witch of Destruction.
Alto attempts to fend her off, and through a few events, Lisette awakens as a witch in the process. They are eventually saved by soldiers of the royal army, who bring them back to Lambert and recruit them into an elite army known as the Regnant Knights. Their quest: to gather the witches of the four elements so they can perform an ensemble to reverse Hilda’s destruction.
Much of that may sound familiar, mostly because the setup is about as cliche as they come for a JRPG. However, after finishing up all of the above plot points (which are included mostly as the game’s prologue), I was surprised with how well the said cliches were pulled off. Everything was weaved together so well, and certain moments of the opening were straight-up gripping.
Much of the cliche dies off as the game continues on (although some of it continues, annoyingly enough adding in some harem “all girls want Alto” elements) and the story develops into something so much more. Where I think Stella Glow shines, though, is in its characters. While some follow typical JRPG and/or anime archetypes, all of them are surprisingly well-written. All of the main party characters, and even some of the NPCs, have hidden depths to them and believable personalities.
A Song to Mend the World
Stella Glow is a turn-based strategy RPG with heavy story elements. Battles are handled very traditionally for the genre. Characters take turns moving around a grid-based map attempting to complete specific objectives for each level, usually pertaining to slaughtering all or certain enemies.
In my opinion, the game hits a sweet spot in terms of complexity: not quite as simple as the Fire Emblem series can be, but not near the intricacies series like Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea can have. Each character has relatively strict functions in battle, with some customization available in equipment and orbs (attachments that increase stats or add certain abilities). Half the battle in this game is knowing which team members to bring to which fight and how to best utilize their specific talents. The witches of the game also provide their own special tactics, as they are the only ones that can use magic. They can be “conducted” by Alto as well, unleashing a special song attack with field-wide effects.
As certain level are hit and tasks are completed, each character also learns some special skills as well. Every character learns a positioning skill, giving stat increases to units that are positioned next to them. Other learn skills ranging from countering enemy attacks to blocking enemies from passing through tiles adjacent to a unit. These skills add a layer of depth to battles, and definitely help make later fights much more about tactics than brute force.
Speaking of which, while I am not a strategy RPG aficionado, I found that Stella Glow leans a bit on the easy side. While the late game presents challenges, much of it is relatively simple. By the time I reached the halfway point, I had only fallen in battle once. It is relatively simple to force your way though many of the battles of the game, especially since there are no penalties to losing a unit.
In between missions, you are given a certain amount of time to complete tasks in the capital of Lambert. Much of this time is spent getting to know the cast of characters, spending time with each of them in their own little story arcs. As I mentioned earlier, characterization is big in this game, and much of it comes from the little conversations during these portions of the game. If that’s not enough of an incentive, spending time with characters also unlocks more skills and abilities to use in battle. You also have the options to work a part-time job to earn money, explore the surrounding area to find items, or “tune” your witches.
Tuning is a major mechanic in Stella Glow. Every once in a while, when spending time with one of your witch party members, they may reveal some personal troubles that they are having difficulty overcoming. Until this trouble is overcome, they will be unable to grow closer to Alto and unlock more skills. This is when you can have Alto tune them, entering their “spirit world” and completing a special battle map. These sequences tend to have more unique objectives, rather than just “kill all enemies.”
I should mention real quick that these special interactions with the witches have an oddly sexual connotation to them. The area where tuning is done presents the witches in provocative positions, conducting them involves Alto plunging his special item, the “song stone,” into their bodies…it’s not in-your-face blatant, but it is definitely noticeable.
Bit of a Tune Up
Stella Glow constantly swaps between three distinct artstyles. On battle maps, you get an isometric view of a nicely-detailed battlefield with miniature versions of your characters and the enemies. The styles of the numerous battlefields are quite varied and the small details can be impressive. My only complaint in this portion would be in the tuning battles, which use the same style, are somewhat repetitive, and appear to reuse maps often.
When units attack each other, the game shifts to its second artsyle, showing the characters in a 3D super-deformed style acting out their attacks and abilities. The models in this portion look decent, although they are slightly less detailed and occasionally a bit jagged. On the other hand their animations are very fluid and fun to watch. Back to the first hand, these animations can become repetitive as the game progresses, and I did not see any way to turn them off.
Outside of battle is our third artstyle, with sprites against static backgrounds. The character sprites here are well-detailed and designed, and the main characters are very expressive as well. Major NPCs also show care put into their designs, and even the one-off NPC portraits are decently drawn…although these are much less expressive. It’s odd to have a character locked in a permanent smile yelling obscenities at a character.
Choir of Angels
As much of Stella Glow‘s story and mechanics revolve around song, one would hope that the music would be a focal point. Luckily, the game does not disappoint. Stella Glow has, in my opinion, an excellent soundtrack and one of the better gaming soundtracks of recent memory. The opening song is excellent, each witch has a couple of vocal songs that are composed well, and many of the background tracks are quite memorable. It helps even more that the sound fidelity is one of the best that I’ve heard on the 3DS.
The game also includes nearly-full voice acting. Most of the major story points, and many of the character skits, are voiced in English. Unfortunately for the purists out there, dual-audio is not an option. However, most of the performances in the English voiceovers are great and fit the characters well. Specific praise from me has to go to the performers for Lisette and Rusty, who, to me, are cast perfectly and turn in excellent performances. Other character’s performances, such as Sakuya’s, aren’t quite as praiseworthy. However, none of them are what I would term awful.
Top of the Charts
I got the chance to review this title right when Tales of Zestiria (newest entry in my favorite gaming series) and Trails in the Sky SC (a game I have been waiting four years for) were released. I have to say, even alongside these games, Stella Glow is one of the best games I have played this year. The story is interesting, the characters are excellent, and the music is surprisingly impressive. Impressive enough for me to listen to outside of the game, which is something I rarely do with video game soundtracks.
Looking back at the faults I mentioned, these were ones that I had to dig to find, and are more of nitpicks than full-on failures on the part of the game. This is a game that I could easily recommend to anyone with a 3DS, especially someone looking for an RPG to pour some time into.
With that said, I would like to award Stella Glow with the second perfect score that I have given here at GamerEscape. It is an excellent game all around, and an amazing surprise coming from a developer with a history a middling games and a turbulent ending. You would be missing out if you don’t it a shot.
~ Final Score: 10/10 ~
Review copy provided by Atlus for 3DS. Screenshots courtesy of Atlus.